How remote network monitoring can save you time and money

Companies can save time, money, and the odd broken network-induced headache with the right remote network monitoring tools, say analysts.

What’s more, there are few drawbacks.

There are many options for remote server monitoring, and a business should select one that best meets its need, says Ross Armstrong, a senior research analyst with London, Ont.-based consulting firm Info-Tech Research Group.

He recommends the technology for companies with more than 15 servers or “small organizations that have a part-time tech who works from home.”

Remote server monitoring tools range from free Web-based sign-up services to low-cost software products to pricier hardware in the form of KVM keyboard-video-mouse) switches.

But Armstrong is leery of free products.

“The first thing that goes through your mind when being offered a free service is ‘what’s wrong with it?’” he says. Companies who aren’t bringing in money from their users might not offer good support.

Hardware advantages

London-based StarTech.com Ltd. offers a KVM switch that does more than connect multiple monitors to one computer. It enables monitoring and managing of the office network remotely through a Web browser.

“There’s a strong case to be made for KVM,” Armstrong says. “With that device you can manage something from anywhere in the world.”

Users can pull up a virtual image of their servers in real time and confirm that their network functions are working – everything from Web access, to e-mail and FTP or custom ports.

The KVM switch also offers greater hands-on ability to troubleshoot network issues from a distance.

You could perform a remote “cold boot,” of the network or access the bios level to attempt debugging in the event of a crash, says StarTech.com Product Manager Paul Lechner.

There’s also the ability add virtual devices – such as disk drives – to your network remotely,  he says.

“If you have a server in Hong Kong that needs to be re-imaged because it failed, you can create a virtual drive through a CD-ROM connected to a computer in Canada.” 

The most popular KVM Control Over IP 16-port device costs about $1,500 and supports up to 136 computers, Lechner adds.

Daisy-chaining the devices allows for more computers to be monitored.

Software benefits

Larger companies might need more powerful capabilities than what KVM can provide, Info-Tech’s Armstrong says.

He said smaller companies with less complex networks could likely benefit from a software option instead.

Toronto-based uptime software Inc. serves clients around the world with its remote server management software that works across many different operating systems.

The tool monitors the performance of physical and virtual servers and offers other features like capacity planning and reporting.

“It goes very deep on the monitoring and reporting side,” says Nick Johnson, marketing manager at uptime. But it’s “not a tool for deploying patches.”

A senior Bank of Montreal (BMO) executive is pleased with the results of deploying up.time across 500 servers at the Toronto branch office.

“It’s one of those applications that you come across in life that really delivers, and that’s rare,” says Joe Kitchen, senior manager of infrastructure development, and technology services at BMO.

The software was easy to install across various operating systems and reported results very quickly, Kitchen adds.

The interface is simple enough for staff to use without hassle, and the product hasn’t required any support to run.

The tool’s capacity planning features “give you the ability to look into the future and see when you’re going to run out of disk space,” Johnson says.

And that’s one capability that has saved the Bank of Montreal money.

“We’ve been able to stretch the hardware a lot further,” Kitchen says. “In some cases we’re getting 20 to one virtual workloads per server.”

Screenshots of the product on uptime’s Web site show its ability to represent the activity of many locations at once, or more specific areas.

For example, a company with networks across Canada can view the country as a whole, or drill down to see how the network in the Toronto office is doing.

Deploying up.time software costs $695 per device per device is installed on, Johnson says, with  discounts offered for large volume orders.

Other remote server monitoring software options are offered by firms such as:

  • Nicom IT Solutions Inc. – This Halifax-based company provides an application and service combo that monitors servers on a daily basis. The tool logs warnings and errors, and e-mails a report to its technicians for analysis.
  • Nagios Enterprises LLC – Headquartered in Minnesota, Nagois offers an Open Source monitoring program that is updated monthly. It’s free and needs a Linux OS to run. The program monitors many different network services and allows you to view reports through a browser
  • My Server Alert in Montreal offers a donation-driven free online service that allows users to monitor their servers via their Web site. Security features protect against hacking attempts and potential vulnerabilities, and there’s a real-time monitoring option in beta.

Remote monitoring products now tend to be easy to both set up and use. Uptime promises reports generated within 15 minutes of deciding to download the application.

StarTech.com’s KVM switch is plug-and-play just like a standard model.

Monitoring for most programs can be accessed over a Web browser. There are various approaches to displaying data in reports.

Capabilities provided range from  monitoring of servers for problems to being able to manipulate the bios – or even manipulating the office Christmas tree!

“Over the holidays we had a remote Christmas tree and you could go into our Web site and turn on and off the lights,” says StarTech.com’s Lechner.

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